Since its establishment on March 14, 1903, the National Wildlife Refuge System has protected and restored a world of wildlife.
Sea turtle capital: Just north of the first wildlife refuge, Pelican Island, on Florida’s Atlantic coast is Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge. It’s the most important nesting area in the Western Hemisphere for the endangered loggerhead sea turtle and the most significant area for green turtle nesting in North America. Hundreds of turtles swim long distances each June to reach beaches and lay 100 or more eggs. Two or three months later, the eggs hatch and young turtles rush for the sea.
Profusion of shorebirds: From late April through early May, hundreds of thousands of shorebirds concentrate on Grays Harbor estuary on Washington’s coast. You’ll see one of the nation’s largest concentrations of shorebirds south of Alaska. These Arctic-bound shorebirds come from as far as Argentina, some traveling more than 15,000 miles roundtrip. In the northeast corner of the estuary is Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge, recognized by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network as a site of international significance. Make plans for the spring Grays Harbor Shorebird and Nature Festival.
Kodiak bears: Alaska is wildlife central. Nothing says “wildlife” like Kodiak brown bears, genetically distinct from mainland brown bears. Kodiak bears have been isolated on the archipelago since the last Ice Age about 12,000 years ago. Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1941 to protect the animal whose name it bears. The refuge’s rich vegetation and plentiful salmon mean the 3,000 bears flourish. Watch sows and cubs fish during summers at Frazer Falls.
Friendly manatees: You can see manatees year-round at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. But in winter the sight is extraordinary: Some 600 of these endangered sea cows – Florida’s largest herd – congregate in the warm, spring-fed waters of Kings Bay. Averaging 10 feet long and 800-1,200 pounds, manatees live an average of 60 years. Take a virtual swim with these gentle giants.
Bison. Bison. And elk: Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge in north-central Nebraska sustains the rich wildlife diversity the land has supported for thousands of years. Fossils from more than 20 mammal species – including the giant bison – have been unearthed here. But it’s the 350-animal bison herd that enthralls. You can get a great view from roads and the overlook, where you can also glimpse the year-round elk herd. Float the Niobrara National Scenic River to get a real eyeful of the refuge’s wildlife, plants and habitats.
Elk. Elk. Lots of elk: Winter in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, isn’t just for skiers. Some 5,000-7,000 Rocky Mountain elk winter at the National Elk Refuge, where you can take a sleigh ride to see the herds up close. Take a sleigh rides any day from mid-December through the end of March. You might well spot bighorn sheep on Miller Butte or free-roaming wolves.
Bald eagles: More than 1,000 bald eagles usually winter at Klamath Basin Wildlife Refuge Complex in northern California and southern Oregon. There you will find the largest concentration of bald eagles in the lower 48 states. At sunup, the flyout is dramatic when the eagles leave their roosts to feed in the marshes. The complex is a group of six refuges that offer prime eagle habitat. Take the auto tour routes on Lower Klamath and Tule Lake Refuges for second-to-none wildlife viewing. You might spot golden eagles, northern harriers, and red-tailed and rough-legged hawks.
Wonder in the remote: No marble edifices here! The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument is alive with birds, fish, coral reefs and marine life that ensure life for the rest of us. Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge is one of seven refuges that may look from an airplane like insignificant dots in the Pacific Ocean. In fact, Palmyra is a wildlife playground, with manini dancing over its coral reefs; thousands of sooty terns and other seabirds and shorebirds; Pacific bottle-nosed dolphins and melon-headed whales in surrounding waters; more than 600 species of fish; and the second largest red-footed booby colony in the world. Recreational snorkeling is available for small groups. See “marvelous musical report” video. Both Palmyra and Kingman Reef Refuges are home to giant clams
Life-giving swamp: Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge – straddling the Georgia/Florida border – may totally change your image of swamp. It’s teeming with wildlife: more than 600 plant species; world renowned for its amphibian populations; nearly 354,000 acres of wilderness; a Wetland of International Importance because it is one of the world’s largest intact freshwater ecosystems. More than 120 miles of canoe trails wind through the refuge’s prehistoric panorama of moss-draped cypress trees. Here you can see wintering sandhill cranes, wood storks, ibis, songbirds, American bitterns, wood ducks and teal, all of which you can photograph from platforms scattered throughout the refuge. Enough said!
Songbirds to shorebirds: Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey, stretching 50 miles along the Atlantic flyway, is aflutter with tens of thousands of birds during spring and fall. Glossy ibis, willet and black duck summer at the refuge. A 6,000-acre wilderness is nesting and feeding habitat for the rare piping plover, least tern and black skimmer. Every spring, horseshoe crabs lay their eggs on the beach; ravenous red knots, sandpipers, sanderlings and dunlins to feast on the eggs before continuing their long migration north.
Elegance on display: By the late 1880s, trumpeter swans had disappeared from Minnesota. In 1987, Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge teamed up with the state to bring back these elegant birds. The first release of several young adults took place at Jim’s Marsh. Today, you can find more than 30 nesting pairs on the refuge, and an estimated 5,500 birds around the state. The comeback of the bird with the seven- to eight-foot wingspan is one of the nation’s great endangered species success stories. Listen for their brassy call and look for them loafing among beds of wild rice. Although you can see them year round, April through October is the best viewing time.
Sandhill cranes en masse: The spectacle is legendary: sandhill cranes and snow geese so plentiful that numbers can be estimated only in the tens of thousands. Photographers and birds descend on Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico every fall, during the celebrated Festival of the Cranes that brings economic vitality to tiny city of Socorro. Other seasons bring their own delights: red-tailed hawks, warblers, avocets and 20 other shorebirds in spring; hummingbirds in summer; and bald eagles in winter, when you can catch the occasional glimpse of mule deer, coyotes and jackrabbits.